The Split Personality of America

Some Americans think of their country as “the home of the brave” but on closer inspection that is only half true. And to be more precise, it’s the western half. Look at this map of Neuroticism based on data compiled by psychologist Peter Rentfrow,

personality map neuroticism
Neuroticism by state. The darker, the more neurotic.

Unlike the maps of the other Big Five personality factors, this one shows a very distinct pattern. It splits the nation into two halves – a fearful East and a bold West. The border seems to go along the Mississippi river. The 20 states scoring highest on Neuroticism are all bordering to the river or east of it. Of the 20 states that score the lowest on this trait, 16 are in the western region – including all of the bottom 10. Why Mississippi? I think we can find a clue if we look at an older map,

United_States_1789-08-1790

This is what America looked like in 1790. As you can see the western border of America went along the river that today appears to separate Americans scoring high or low on Neuroticism. But why should this be? Most likely because up until around 1800 almost all immigrants came, at least partly, to avoid religious persecution.

This is what I referred to in my previous post, the review of Susan Cain’s book on introverts, as an explanation for how the early America had a Culture of Character, although I guessed that the early settlers would be introverts rather than neurotics. These traits are of course similar and Cain admits that her view on Introversion incorporates what others view as Neuroticism.

At any rate, the second wave of immigrants were not so much fleeing Europe to avoid persecution. The were lured by the land- and goldrushes and other hopes of fortune and glory. They were the frontiersmen and women who ventured out in the hostile and uncivilized terrorities of what is sometimes called the Wild West. They were, in other words, not high on Neuroticism. Most likely, this latter wave of immigrants were also Sensation Seekers although this trait or anything similar to it is not covered by the Big Five model that Rentfrow uses.

While lot’s of people have moved around within America since the early days, the pattern shown in the first map does suggest that these two breeds of Americans – stick people and carrot people – still exist today and that they to a large extent live where their ancestors first settled. This serves as an interesting example of how it can be that one people differs from another and how even within a nation you can find a cultural and behavioral variety that has a genetic basis.

In the future we will probably see even more patterns like this one emerging as more or less intentional communities arise when people to a larger extent can choose their own environments. And who knows, as people become more aware of the genetic basis of their newfound tribes, this trend may even split our species. Let’s call the first bunch to branch off Homo Mississippiens.

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13 Responses to The Split Personality of America

  1. not too late says:

    Regular folks in the US aren’t allowed to create intentional communities. That is discrimination and the federal gov’t will force Section 8 housing into any sufficiently large successful community. Only the rich can have intentional (gated) communities that price the dangerous elements out.

    • Staffan says:

      It’s going to happen sooner or later. Politicians do what they have to do to get re-elected. San Francisco is an intentional community even with some public housing. Although I wouldn’t want to live there, people there seem very full of themselves.

  2. JayMan says:

    Very interesting, but a couple of complexities. Only the “Northern Alliance” settlers were coming to flee religious persecution; that is, the Puritans and the Quakers (and their German Pietists allies). The settlers to the South are a different story. The “Distressed Cavaliers” that founded the Tidewater area came more for fortune than anything, fortune they couldn’t make at home. The settlers of the Charleston colony, who went on to found the Deep South, came to make money on cash crops exploiting slave labor. And I’ve already mentioned the Scotch-Irish who settled Appalachia.

    This probably explains the distinct North-South divide you see.

    The settlers to the West, especially the interior West, were big and bold frontier peoples indeed. They were mostly of Scotch-Irish extraction. They were of a “fighting spirit” so to speak, as there was a reason the West was Wild.

    The newer, post 1800-immigrants, mostly settled in the East, or just to the west of the Mississippi River, or on the West Coast. The bulk of those were Germans and Scandinavians who settled in Quaker/Yankee areas in the upper Midwest. You do see that pronounced difference in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas (and the West Coast), the states which received the bulk of these newer immigrants.

    I agree that introversion and neuroticism seem to go hand in hand. Are we sure these are indeed distinct personality dimensions?

    This is an excellent way of breaking down the regional differences in the U.S., and it’d be great to see more research like this.

    • Staffan says:

      Yes, I’m oversimplifying here. My basic idea is that the religious people settled early and made their mark on the eastern part of the country. The others who followed then had the choice of staying in the eastern part of the country with less opportunity but more safety or head out to the west with the opposite conditions. So the fact that the eastern part was more developed may be a factor in this too.

      It’s just a matter of definition. Cain puts a lot of anxiety into her view of Introversion. I think it’s more like Eysenck claimed, a matter of attention and wakefulness. But the underlying biological systems no doubt interact so the idea of pure traits is probably unrealistic.

      I think Rentfrow has a more recent article on this. And there is a worldwide study by Terracciano and others. Hopefully someone will present maps on that otherwise I might do it myself.

  3. Z. says:

    Staffan, I replied to you over at Jayman’s blog.

    Interesting about fear based vs bold based Americans in your above writing.

    I’ve read a lot of doom and gloom blogs about how “The US is going down the tubes” “destruction is imminent just look at how the Roman Empire went down” blah, blah, blah.

    I don’t see it that way at all.

    After living abroad for several years I am struck by the increasing interest of Americans in the Eastern Wisdom Traditions. These traditions are imparting values and self actualization practices into these Americans and as more and more of us get into it, the better our general culture will become.

    I see a bright, more intelligent, more empathic, more refined and cultured future coming.

  4. Staffan says:

    I don’t think America is going to hell but it wouldn’t surprise me if it split into different parts. Like the Roman empire it may be to big and diverse to have the necessary cohesion. But that may well be for the better.

    As for the future, that also a matter of personality. Introversion correlates with pessimism and I’m highly introverted and perhaps somewhat pessimistic. It’s true that violence has declined but I see a lot of other clouds on the horizon – the environment, terrorism, pandemics etc.

    • Z. says:

      I’m also introverted and a bit cynical with sarcastic humor however my meditation practice has me more or less on inner peace and positivity mode all the time and I see the future positively because more and more people are taking to practices like mine which means they will also become more peaceful and positive.

      That’s not wishing away the bad. My tradition teaches that you can’t have the good without the bad because the dance of opposites is the way of this world, as we can see all around us with our own eyes.

      However through practice and detachment one is able to absorb these facts and not spiral down into depression over them.

  5. […] The Split Personality of America – “The 20 states scoring highest on Neuroticism are all bordering to the [mississippi] river or east of it. Of the 20 states that score the lowest on this trait, 16 are in the western region – including all of the bottom 10.” – nice post from staffan! […]

  6. Mrmandias says:

    Interesting, but the historical record doesn’t match your explanation much.

    Utah, for example, was settled by Mormons fleeing religious persecution. And the wave of settlement consisted more of native stock moving west than of immigrants. Immigrants were more likely to try to fit in back East.

    • Staffan says:

      The Mormons didn’t come to America to avoid persecution – they founded a church in America and then found themselves persecuted. And many of their followers joined despite of the fact that they were persecuted. That suggests that they may have been less fearful than the average.

      Not to say that there aren’t exceptions to the overall picture – Jayman provided and interesting example of that. But you have to look at the big picture.

    • T. Greer says:

      This is partly true. In the Mormon example it most defiantly was not – a very large percentage, approaching 50% of settlers in Utah, were Mormon converts from England, Scandinavia, or the Netherlands. Oregon trail was much native-based.

  7. JayMan says:

    I meant to bring this to your attention a while ago, but, being busy and all 🙂

    A Map of How Personality Types Vary Across the United States

    • Staffan says:

      Thanks, I haven’t seen that article before. Rentfrow was kind enough to mail me his data in an excel file, but it looks like he has increased the sample size quite a lot. We will see if this pattern holds up; it looks promising with “temperamental” and lack of “relaxed” in the East.

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